Hotmail becomes Outlook: we enter the dour world of corporate email

Is the rest of the internet catching up with Google?

Yesterday saw the opening salvo of a marketing bombardment that will see Microsoft try to saturate the online world with awareness of its revamped email service Outlook.com, and which may mark 2013 as the year when the rest of the internet caught up with Google.

Yahoo’s recently broadcast ambition towards regaining its presence as a search provider wasn’t so much a declaration of war against the web multinational as a reminder that there is room for other brands to thrive in people’s daily activity – but now we really do have a fight on our hands.

While Yahoo has pecked at Google’s periphery to distract it, tag-team partner Microsoft is now looming behind with a steel chair, ready to deliver a solid blow to the mailbox.

And going by the numbers so far, the wrestling metaphor isn’t complete hyperbole - during Outlook.com’s "trial period" since last July, the service attracted 60 million signups - including, Microsoft claims – 20 million Gmail defectors.

I will admit that, since I don’t use hotmail and am hardly in the market for a new email provider, I hadn’t been fully aware of the revamp. I certainly am now, and so too will be hundreds of millions of web users, as Microsoft launches a marketing campaign on a scale usually reserved for campaigns to advertise human beings who want to run countries.

Running for pretty much the entirety of the second quarter, the effort will see Outlook.com evangelised across every ad platform from TV to bus flanks, and is expected to set Microsoft back between $30m and $90m.

Much as in a two-candidate political race, Microsoft is even running smear ads on the competition, playing to the growing perception of Google as intrusive and eavesdropping.

The first of these ads pulls no punches, opening with a screenshot of an email about a cat being put down, and superimposing a pair of eerie blue eyes, greedily flickering over private information to find commercial opportunities. In today’s internet, associating your competitor with profiting from cat death is akin to a sixteenth century bishop accusing the miller’s wife of being a witch.

What is Google doing about all this? Well, to be fair, the search titan started offering users the chance to upgrade Gmail to offer a lot of what the new Outlook.com boasts (most notably the ability to send multi-gigabyte files as attachments) some time ago. The problem was that many, like me, hovered warily over the upgrade option before deciding to think about it some other time: we were happy with our mail service as it was and not really looking for a change.

Nevertheless, Microsoft’s marketing blitz, as well as Yahoo’s upcoming plans to renew its relevance as a brand, is reminding somewhere between 306 and 425 million Google account holders that there is life outside the bubble. We are certainly curious.

With the functionality of Outlook.com basically analogous with what we have already known through Gmail for most of the last decade, what will determine our eventual choice of provider is basically a question of brand.

I still associate the Outlook brand indelibly with the dour world of corporate email, and using Outlook online with its truly gruesome webmail interface. In the case of Hotmail, which Outlook.com will replace over the coming months, I retain the mid-2000s brand association with people who aren’t web-literate enough to have heard of Gmail.

I suppose it’s a good thing for Microsoft that they’ve earmarked $90m to change my mind.

Microsoft updates. Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.